When I first saw miniature pairs of jeans cut out from denim dangling from the second story of the Munger Science Center, I did a double take. Then I remembered Denim Day. When I walked further into campus and saw the walls adorned with jeans decorated with phrases like “No means no,” I thought only one thing: where’s the pithy phrase about rape culture?
I thought my worries were assuaged when I scouted out jeans whose writing read “End rape culture.” Alas, this was only the beginning of my problems. It turns out a pithy phrase is cold comfort when your fellow students, especially your fellow male students, people whom you otherwise like, don’t know what that pithy phrase even means.
I was told by a male classmate that the phrase “rape culture” is “inaccessible” and “unfriendly” and invites undesirable “snap judgments.” A male classmate told a friend of mine he didn’t understand what the point of raising awareness about rape was, that it made him uncomfortable. Another male classmate told me the phrase “rape culture” makes no sense because no one outright approves of rape. No one likes a rapist, so how does our society condone rape?
I’ll admit the phrase “rape culture” is unfriendly. Unfortunately, rape is also unfriendly. I’ll admit the phrase “rape culture” probably makes many boys uncomfortable. Unfortunately, in a country where, according to a 2011 government survey, nearly one in five women has been sexually assaulted, I’m not too concerned about the discomfort a mere phrase provokes in boys. If rape is so reviled in our culture, why are so many women sexually assaulted? I’ve noticed my male peers like to talk about rapists like they’re rare monsters ostracized by society. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of rape is committed by people whom the rape survivors know, by people you talk to every day, by people you consider “nice” and “normal.”
I get it—no one wants to think that those who rape are nice and normal, people we chat with, people or celebrities who do things we consider admirable. But as long as a caricature persists of a rapist as a sinister figure lurking in the shadows, our culture will implicitly condone behavior that approves of the real people who rape and live in the daylight.
How else does our society condone rape? Well, off the top of my head: every time someone makes a rape joke, as when a male classmate giggled to me about the jeans around campus that had the (admittedly poorly phrased) slogan “consent is not an option,” they imply that rape is something to joke about, something one doesn’t need to take seriously. That same urge to minimize the gravity of rape occurs every time someone says, “That math test raped me.”
Rape culture is when women are taught their whole lives how to avoid rape, when the onus is on them to prevent it, while those who can truly stop rape—the perpetrators—aren’t taught not to do it.
Rape culture is when lyrics in Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” are, as demonstrated by the photo project Project Unbreakable, the same exact words that sexual assault survivors report their rapists using to justify their actions. It’s when “Blurred Lines” becomes a number-one hit.
Rape culture is when a Brown University student can rape and strangle his friend and be allowed to return to campus this fall, the same time when she will return because of the spine injury she suffered in the assault, as in the current college sexual assault scandal du jour. It’s when so many colleges can’t properly deal with sexual assault that I can use the phrase “college sexual assault scandal du jour.”
Rape culture is when survivors are blamed for their rapes, when they’re asked why they dressed the way they did, why they drank, why they acted like they were “asking for it.” It’s when women fear to report rape because of the imminence of these questions, when the burden of proof falls on them to “prove” their rape. It’s when, because of these challenges, only three percent of rapists are sentenced to prison, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. It’s when, on the rare occasion that the survivor comes forward, that the rapist is convicted of rape, CNN anchors mourn the destruction of the “promising futures” of the teenage rapists whose “lives fell apart” while neglecting to mention the teenage girl they raped whose life they caused to fall apart, as happened last year in Steubenville, Ohio. It’s when those teenagers didn’t realize they were raping her because she was unconscious and couldn’t say no. It’s when people don’t realize that not only does “no mean no,” as last week’s Denim Day photoshoot emphasized, but that not saying no doesn’t mean yes.
Rape culture is if you read this column and do nothing to change your behavior.